By Laura McAlister
Family traditions are usually passed from parents to children, but not in the Norman family — at least when it comes to one of their most recent traditions.
Worth E. Norman Jr., better known as Woody, recently was the third in his family to graduate from Sewanee, the University of the South, in Tennessee. He follows in the footsteps of two of his children.
Cynthia Bramley Norman Williams, Woody’s youngest child, was the first to graduate from Sewanee. She received her undergraduate degree from the school in 1998, and her brother, Curtis K. Norman, graduated from the theology school there in 2001. Woody, a Hoover resident, received his master of sacred theology degree from Sewanee in May.
As is the custom at the University of the South, gowns are passed down to family members also graduating from the school, so Woody wore the same black graduation gown his daughter and son did when they received their diplomas. Now, however, the gown bears his initials and graduation date along with his children’s.
The degree will be Woody’s fourth and perhaps his last, giving him the most in the family. But continued education is somewhat of a tradition for the Normans as well.
A few years after graduating from Sewanee, Cynthia went to law school at the University of Alabama and is now an attorney for Clark, Hair and Smith, P.C. in Birmingham. She lives in the same Hoover neighborhood as her parents.
Her oldest brother, Michael, didn’t attend Sewanee, but he did receive degrees from East Carolina University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. He is a nurse anesthetist.
Curtis is an Episcopal priest in Rio Grande, Texas. Cynthia and Woody are betting he’ll be the first member of the family to receive a Ph.D.
Although Woody is 66 years old, Cynthia wasn’t surprised to watch her dad receive his diploma at her alma mater May 14.
“I think the bigger shocker was my brother going there,” she joked.
Woody has actually been working toward his Sewanee degree for nearly a decade.
“It usually takes four years, but for me it was more like 10,” he said.
Woody started at the school in 2000. He had recently retired from EDS, an outsourcing information technology company, and was working on his own as an advisor in the same field. He was also working at St. Peter’s Anglican Church in Mountain Brook, where he’s been a deacon for 17 years.
Woody needed just six hours plus his thesis to complete his degree when, in the summer of 2003, he had a bout with vertigo.
“The classes were in the summer, and I couldn’t walk for a couple of months, so I missed them,” Woody said. “Then I went back to work and thought I would never finish.”
But then the recession hit, leaving Woody with the free time he needed to finish his studies. He was able to complete his six hours at Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and get his degree from Sewanee, a school he always admired.
In fact, it was a childhood trip with Woody to the school that convinced Cynthia to attend the University of the South.
“The first week I was there, I thought it was a big mistake,” Cynthia recalled. “But it wasn’t at all.”
Cynthia majored in history at Sewanee. As a senior she was head proctor. She first received the black graduation gown worn by all three as a sophomore at the school as part of a longtime tradition at Sewanee called the Order of the Gownsmen.
“In undergrad it’s based on grades and leadership,” she said. “You can’t get it your freshman year, so I got it my sophomore, and my brother got it automatically since he was part of the graduate program. Then my dad. You get your initials on it when you graduate, so you can pass it down to family members.”
For now, Cynthia said, she is done getting degrees, but the attorney and new mom isn’t ruling anything out.
Woody said he plans to continue working on his own as an IT outsourcing advisor, but he also wants to focus on writing and caring for his grandchildren. He has five in all, so who knows? Maybe the Sewanee tradition isn’t over just yet for the Norman family.